When people show you who they are… don’t believe them?

People really like to share that quote from Maya Angelou that goes “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”.

I am an enormous fan of the poet Maya Angelou, but this quote has always bothered me, mostly because of how incompatible it appears to be with a growth mindset, and how it seems to support the “fundamental attribution error”.

Fundamental attribution error, aka correspondence bias, is our tendency to consider observed behavior to be the product of who someone is, as opposed to situational or external factors. Research in social sciences shows again and again that our behaviors aren’t just a pure reflection of who we are deep down. They are largely contextual, and heavily influenced by a number of factors, including cultural norms, who we spend time with, how we are socialized, and countless other external forces. We are not just the product of pre-existing “nature” or even completely summed up by that plus the whole baking process of “nurture”, because our behavior continues to be influenced by contextual factors in real-time. Our behavior and actions are us (nature + nurture) plus a whole system of influences which extends outside of us. If you want ethical action, you can’t just concern yourself with the character of every individual. You also have to ask whether the cultural system you create and maintain upholds and influences behavior to be ethical.

I have held some pretty unfortunate opinions in the past, some of which I look back on and cringe with shame and embarrassment. Is the fact that I once considered homosexuality to be a cosmic crime against god and nature, worthy of eternal damnation, a reflection of who I am? If, when my wife and I met when I was 17, she had considered me spouting hateful religious vitriol to be me showing her who I am… and she had believed me… well I never would have had the opportunity to meet her friends and family, some of whom were the first gay people I had ever encountered. She did me the favor of challenging me to think beyond the cultural system I occupied. To believe my words and actions to be a reflection of who I was (rather than simply a product of where I was) would be to leave me alone and poorly equipped to escape my ignorance.

This is not to say that it is the responsibility of those harmed by ignorance to enlighten and educate those who are harming them with ignorant and hateful views. You have every right to remove yourself from the line of fire. It is not the obligation of people of color, for example, to educate those who hold racist or prejudicial views. But I think it is at least worth considering whether the ideal response to ignorance is dismissal – believing others’ actions to be a reflection of who they are rather than a product of the system that they occupy.

I think when it comes to serving the role of “leader” things get more clear though. As leaders, it is actually our concern whether the cultural systems that we are stewards of equip those within them to take ethical action. This is more than just a matter of whether we are leading “ethical people” and ejecting those who don’t make the cut. It includes factors such as what level of tolerance we have for views, behavior, and speech that might support, encourage, or enable the cultural system to harbor unethical and harmful behaviors. As leaders, we can’t just remove ourselves from the conversation. It’s our actual job to make sure those with toxic views aren’t having undue influence on the systems we’re supposed to be stewards of.

This is why we require zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault in the military. We can’t just go “welp, guess that guy is just an asshole” – we have to aggressively intervene, create cultural systems that won’t stomach such behaviors, increase opportunities for reform where appropriate, and prevent those who won’t reform from harming others or having too much influence on the cultural system.

This is why we need to be outspoken about the ethical and logical basis for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the military. It is why it’s important to remove those from the force who have dedicated themselves to extremist ideologies that might intentionally undermine those efforts and introduce poisonous elements into systems that require equity in order to be both ethical and effective.

This is why it was so important for military leaders to speak out this past week about the highly publicized and problematic views we heard from pundits about inclusion and accommodation for women in the armed forces.

If we do not actively act as stewards of our cultural system, outside forces will seek to shape them for their own purposes- for profit and the benefit of their sectarian tribes, and they are not as equipped as we are to know what is right, ethical, and effective for our organizational purposes.

I can’t claim to know the original intent of Maya Angelou’s oft-repeated quote about believing people when they show you who they are; but the way that people appear to employ her quote has never really jived with my perspective on growth, potential, and leadership- people aren’t only their behaviors, their behaviors aren’t the entirety of who they are or could be, and as leaders we can’t afford to just consider behaviors and speech a product of identity.

3 thoughts on “When people show you who they are… don’t believe them?

  1. I like how you challenge what appears to make sense at first blush. I believe people can change. It may seem like they can’t, because change is slow, and rare, but if people cant change, all is lost. That said, I can conceive that in certain situations, I might feel tempted to take Maya’s words to heart. You can’t change everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interestingly, your penultimate paragraph (“If we do not actively act as stewards…”) can be – is – a rallying cry for any cultural system. I have a feeling, for example, that the religious leaders of your youth had exactly this opinion of what would happen if they failed to act in this way and in their position as the arbiters of what is “right, ethical, and effective.”

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  3. To me, when someone shows me “who they are”, it is much deeper than any single action or belief. There are people whom I believe are “good people”, even if I find a belief or action of theirs to be unacceptable, because what they “showed me the first time” led me to believe that. I have a feeling that when you met your wife at such a young age, there was something that you “showed” her, consciously or not, that led her to believe you were a “good guy”.

    What is “shown” by someone may be, likely is, received differently by different people. For example, you and I may be shown the same thing by the same person and come away with a different understanding of what were shown. It is up to each of us to understand why we perceive someone the way do, and to take the action we deem appropriate.

    And at this point I will refer the reader to Dave Gray’s incredible “Liminal Thinking”. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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